Living with the past

There are several ways of living with the past. One is to fetishize it and lock it in a museum, looking at it from the distance of an exhibit, a display which only serves to underline the gulf between ourselves and those who lived and died before us. The present is disconnected from the past, the past becomes untouchable history, to be studied, understood but kept away from. This is the past as patrimoine, an approach the French seem to be most skilled at.

Another way is to let it engulf us in ways in which it becomes unclear where the line between generations should be drawn, if it must be drawn at all. The ruins of the past are the garden in which we choose to build our house. There is no way of telling where our world begins and where theirs ends. This is the past as a decadent universe, which I find Italy to be one of the best representatives of.

Yet another way is to commodify it, which is to extract benefits from it, to turn it into a sightseeing tour, a mass of landmarks, a gallery of death masks for the sole purpose of entertainment. It is the past as theme park. It seems to be the British way.

One must also bear in mind the spirit of a society and the way in which the history of a place is understood by its inhabitants. Merchant societies tend to commodify the past, while those who may want to distance themselves from their past are more likely to museify their history, to look at it from the vantage point of a disinterested observer, the Romantic onlooker scrutinising the stormy sea from the safety of a rock.

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